Pryce-Jones (The Closed Circle, 1989, etc.), who was for many years a correspondent in the Soviet Union for the Daily Telegraph, has written a strange and intriguing book on what is perhaps the central event of our time. Traveling extensively throughout the country, meeting people high and low, Pryce-Jones leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the only thing unusual about the death of the Soviet empire was that it caught the West by surprise. Within the Communist Party hierarchy and down to the man and woman in the street, it seems that everyone had an inkling of the impending catastrophe. From party leaders to sclerotic bureaucrats, national minorities, workers, and intellectuals, the voices of those interviewed by Pryce Jones combine in a chorus of corruption, paralysis, hopelessness, and despair. The central figure in this drama is, of course, Gorbachev. In the introduction, the author implies that the last Soviet leader was ""a tragic hero,"" but by the conclusion he is able to write that he may be seen either as a historic personality of lasting stature or a simpleton. Some of these points have been made before: that the despotism of the czars was the historical antecedent of the Leninist-Stalinist regime; the dismal litany of crimes, betrayals, greed, and vanity. Pryce-Jones is on shakier ground when he asserts that Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and rival party leaders Yakovlev, Ligachev, and Lukyanov were all cut from the same cloth, or when he implicates Khrushchev in the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskj"ld. Most questionable is the assertion that intellectuals such as Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Sartre, and Graham Greene supported the Soviet Union as a matter of ""self-esteem"" and that Foucault, Lukacs, Marcuse, and others ""had a brutal manic streak in their characters which found its correspondence with similar sadists."" A wealth of detail from the warp and woof of Soviet society, but flawed by a lack of critical insight.